Actor and writer Jesse Eisenberg recorded two radio plays for the latest episode of the Believer’s KCRW radio show, The Organist. Ben Greenman, a longtime McSweeney’s contributor and New Yorker editor, wrote one of the plays and Eisenberg wrote the other. After the recording, Jesse spoke with the show’s producer, Ross Simonini, about his writing. That conversation is below. The new episode of The Organist came out this week and can be heard here.
ROSS SIMONINI: How long have you been writing short humor pieces?
JESSE EISENBERG: Well, I recently went back home to my parents’ house and I was looking through my drawers, cleaning stuff out, and I found a lot of old jokes I wrote when I was probably—starting at 13, 14. I wrote jokes on Post-It notes and I would save them. They were all about sex, a subject of which I knew nothing about at the time but felt confident enough to make a lot of jokes about.
SIMONINI: Do you remember what any of them were?
EISENBERG: Well, they all started out generally with “I just had so much sex!” You know, the most inappropriate setup for a 13-year-old boy to write about. And some of them were funny. I think I was inspired by Borscht Belt humor, really cheesy one-liner jokes that I liked but that were not appropriate for me to be writing.
SIMONINI: And have you just been writing humor since then?
EISENBERG: I stopped to start writing plays that were more dramatically resonant, rather than just jokes—and that was very helpful in terms of writing humor, ‘cause now when I write pieces that are funny, they’re all character-based, they’re not line-based. There’s usually an undercurrent of some kind of sadness. And I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that if I didn’t stop writing things that were explicitly funny to write more dramatic plays.
SIMONINI: But you still write drama, too?
EISENBERG: Yes—I write plays, and always have. And then write humor as a distraction because it’s quicker.
SIMONINI: Do you write humor to make yourself laugh?
EISENBERG: Yeah, if something makes me laugh, I will write it—I have a lot of concepts that I haven’t fully finished because I just don’t find them funny and it’s just impossible to finish something that you don’t find funny, ‘cause it’s just going to be terrible.
SIMONINI: What kind of humor writers do you feel like you’re working in the lineage of?
EISENBERG: When I read something that I really like, I’m so in awe of it—the writers that I like. So in McSweeney’s, for example—Dan Kennedy and Ben Greenman. My favorite thing on McSweeney’s are [Greenman’s] “Earth Ball” letters. I also like Simon Rich; Seth Reiss writes for The Onion and he’s written some funny stuff for McSweeney’s. Those are the guys I really like.
SIMONINI: What about some of the people from a previous generation working in this form—like Fran Liebowitz?
EISENBERG: I read Woody Allen’s books and I liked his short stories. I liked the way they were absurd but existentially meaningful because he was writing about something that people thought of and were concerned about, like death, using some kind of absurdity or absurd premise to discuss those higher philosophical ideas. Simon Rich tends to do that kind of thing really well; he’ll take some kind of absurd social premise and then bring it to its surrealistic degree by including something that’s nonsensical in there, like having Death be a character. I like that stuff a lot but for some reason I don’t—can’t do that.
SIMONINI: And you were saying you’re working on a book of short pieces? What will that be?
EISENBERG: I have pieces that are published in various places: McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, and then plays that I’ve published elsewhere or have just been performed. And so I’m trying to collect something that is thematically similar. At McSweeney’s I have a column that’s thematically similar to some of the pieces that I write.
SIMONINI: Would the pieces you write suit performance?
EISENBERG: I don’t write it to be performed because it’s a little absurd, and when I act I usually act in things that are more realistic, and that’s kind of the acting I like to do. This is kind of—I would call it more broad comedy, because you’re hitting these jokes, and the thing I don’t like about that is that if you’re performing it and you miss the joke, it’s kind of a fail. It’s a binary system. It’s either “fails” or “succeeds.” Whereas I think if you’re reading something, it’s—you just give it greater leeway.
SIMONINI: Do you read aloud when you’re writing? Do you try to perform things or act them out ever?
EISENBERG: No—I find when I read it out loud it hurts the momentum of the joke. When I write plays, I would read it out loud, ’cause I write dialogue that’s meant to be read. But with the humor pieces, I think if they’re not working while you’re reading them, they’re not gonna work. If it requires a voice, it’s not going to work, because it’s not gonna translate to somebody else reading it.
SIMONINI: Is writing these pieces different from writing plays because one is based in performance?
EISENBERG: Yeah, definitely. When I write a play, I’m thinking of a character’s history, I’m thinking of what they want. When you write a short humor piece, those people cannot live outside that very narrow joke. They’re there to highlight all of the funny things that are part of that circumstance. And—you know—a foot away from that circumstance they would suffocate.
SIMONINI: You mentioned some of the humor writers, but could you maybe mention a few of the playwrights you’re interested in?
EISENBERG: Well, like I said I like more serious playwrights. I like, for example, my friend Lucy Thurber. She’s like a mentor to me. She writes very dramatic plays—I mean, there are moments of levity in her plays, but otherwise they’re—shocking, they’re transgressive, they’re dark, and I really like that. When I write a play they’re generally lighter than hers and more funny, but that’s what I like. And then the truth is anytime you’re inspired by something, and you write something, it gets filtered through your own perspective and own aesthetic, so it’s really impossible, if you write anything that’s honest and has some kind of creative integrity—it’s gonna come out how you want it to come out, and otherwise you’re just kind of copying somebody else.
SIMONINI: Do you think there’s anything about humor that lends itself inherently to the shorter form, versus plays, which are a longer, two-hour situation?
EISENBERG: Well, when I think of an idea I immediately know how long it should be, like a guy who’s saying “we only have time for one more song” can’t sustain more than 700-800 words. But at 700-800 words, you can do something that’s not only funny, but you can actually have some pathos; you can reveal a guy who’s very lonely, who wishes they could play more but he can’t because of all these absurd reasons, a guy who’s put upon by the world. Any longer, it seems just odd; any shorter, it just seems underdone.
SIMONINI: Did you ever try standup?
EISENBERG: No, you know I never did standup comedy because I’m intimidated by it—but the more sophisticated rationale I gave myself is that it’s really hard to do something where you’re being judged for one thing: funny or not? When I’m doing a play, there are things that are funny in it, there are things that are sad, but ultimately you’re getting a kind of rich experience of these people’s lives that is varied. With comedy, if people aren’t laughing, you failed, and if people are laughing, you succeeded.